The Garden Route

The Garden Route is probably one of the best known and most spectacular area in all of South Africa. Running along South Africa’s southeastern coast, it extends for roughly 200 miles (322 km) from Mossel Bay to the Storms River. The route is so named because of its numerous lakes, lagoons, verdant and highly diverse vegetation.

The towns along the Route include Knysna, Plettenberg Bay, Nature’s Valley and George, which is known as the “gateway to Garden Route” and is also its largest city.

The Route features majestic mountains, awesome coastline and spectacular valleys and plains. There is an abundance of flowers and plants, forests and wildlife, as well as a number of beautiful national parks and interesting nature and game reserves along the Route.

coast with mountains   The Garden Route
With an oceanic climate – warm, mild summer months and cool, mild winters, the area along the Garden Route boasts the mildest climate in all of South Africa. According to the Guinness Books of Records, it has the second mildest climate in the world, with only Hawaii being milder. Winter temperatures hardly ever drop below 50°F (10°C) and they don’t go above 82°F (28°C) in summer. So you can come here any time of the year and enjoy the weather and the beauty of the area.

The Garden Route is sandwiched between the Outeniqua, and Tsitsikamma Mountains and the coast along the Indian Ocean. Both of these mountain ranges have indigenous forests that are a unique combination of temperate forest and Cape Fynbos (natural heathland).

Eco-tourist activities abound in this area. It’s a wonderful place for birdwatchers with more than 300 species to look out for. Along with the ten national forests and nature reserves, there are also many unique marine reserves which are home to exquisite coral reefs, seals, dolphins and many other varieties of marine life. Even the endangered Southern Right Whales come to the bays between July and December to raise their young.

One of the hardest parts of doing a virtual tour of this wonderful place is to know where to begin and what to include or leave out?

There are so many things to see and do that it is impossible to include them all. So starting in Capetown, this article will  concentrate on the national parks and reserves you will find traveling along the Garden Route.

The National Parks & Reserves

The first stop has got to be the Cape Peninsula, an incredible mountain range that stretches approximately 38 miles (60 km) from Signal Hill to the Cape Point. Sandwiched between the Atlantic Ocean and the warm waters of False Bay, this narrow stretch of land has lots of bays, beaches and valleys to explore.

Two landmarks, the Cape of Good Hope and Table Mountain are world renown, but there are many other points of interest that should not be overlooked. Of particular interest in Simon’s Town is the African Penguin, the only penguin native to the African continent. It is believed that they crossed from the Antarctic to this tip of Africa by a long-lost land bridge. With only 570 mating pairs, this aquatic, flightless bird is on the endangered species list.

  african penguinSilvermine coast line
Another must-see is the Silvermine Nature Reserve. A trek of 4.34 miles (7 km) with stunning views along the cliffs, the Noordhoek Peak circuit is one many hiking trails in the Silvermine Nature Reserve.  With so many hiking trails, you can opt for a short leisurely walk or a more strenuous hike that takes a day to complete.

Be sure to take along a picnic because at Signal Lookout, the Kirstenboshc Botanical Gardens, Buffels Bay and Miller’s Point, there are some incredibly beautiful places to stop.

One of those places to stop has to be the Grootvadersbosh Nature Reserve. This 618 acre (250 hectare) reserve is in the middle of the Langeberg Mountains about 22 miles northwest of Heidelberg. This is one of the largest areas of natural forest in the region and it is the largest example of  indigenous forest remaining in the Langeberg.

The Reserve, combined with more than 34,560 acres (14,000 hectare) of wilderness, has many wonderful hiking routes including the Bushbuck Trail. This trail winds through some seriously dense vegetation and offers excellent bird watching opportunities with species like the forest canary, the Cape Siskin and the Knysna Woodpecker which isn’t  found anywhere else. There are two bird hides in the forest where, along with the above mentioned species, you might catch a glimpse of a crowned eagle or a paradise flycatcher. Smaller mammals also abound here; you’re quite likely to see mongoose, a Genet, gray Rhebuck or baboons.

There is also a mountain biking trail called the Grootvadersborsch Conservancy Cycle Trail. And, another not to be missed is a short hike to a gorge along the Duivenhoks River.

Adjacent to the Grootvadersbosch Reserve is the 34,560 acre Boosmansbos Wilderness Area. This loosely translated means “angry man’s forest” perhaps so named because of a hermit that lived in the area during the 19th century. He liked to scare away anyone who got too close to his beehives.

wilderness area with Protia

At almost 1.24 miles (2000 m) high, The Grootberg is the highest peak in the Boosmansbos. This area is largely untouched by tourists, the 44+ miles (70 km) of roads and trails are virtually uninhabited, allowing you to commune with nature in peace. Luckily though, there are a few  overnight huts they are primitive) available on a first come, first serve basis.

This is truly a hiker’s paradise, especially if your thing is looking at some of the most spectacular views imaginable as you climb and wander through the countryside.

Even with the hiking trails and spectacular views, the highlight of a visit to this area has got to be the variety of indigenous trees. The Kloof Forests and Fynbos are all that remain of a once vast forest. There are many species of yellowwoods, Cape holly, red alder and beech trees standing side by side with candlewood trees and white alder. If you are lucky, you may even spot some of the mountain cypress, it is one of the very few natural softwoods in South Africa.

Garden Route Game Reserve

Continuing along the Garden Route is the Garden Route Game Reserve. This is a big game reserve and a real ‘must-do’ on your journey east. It features Africa’s “big five” animals in smaller numbers than elsewhere and gives you the chance to see the animals up close without having to journey in land.

To truly experience what this Reserve has to offer, you might want to arrange an overnight stay at the Game Lodge because you aren’t allowed to travel through the Reserve on your own and the lodge offers a variety of guided tours.

In addition to the “big five”, you are also likely to see zebras, wildebeest, giraffe and crocodiles. Although their tracks are abundant, with luck you’ll catch sight of the elusive Cape Mountain Leopard. At a large reptile park on the Reserve, a herpetologist (a zoologist who deals with amphibians and reptiles) will show you the 23 species of snakes in residence.

Botlierskop Game Reserve

The next place you’ll want to stop is the Botlierskop Game Reserve just a few kilometers east. Here you can have a true safari experience with tours on offer in the relative safety of 4 wheel drive vehicles. You should be able to encounter some of the more than 1800 animals, covering more than 26 species. In conjunction with the International Fund for Animal Welfare, this Reserve has rescued four African lions who are now living in the park.

The Elephant Back Safari

An important and unique experience on offer in this Park is the Elephant Back Safari. It is a first for the Garden Route. The two safaris elephants are Sam and Tsotsi, orphans that survived a culling program in Zimbabwe.

The City of George

Regarded as the administrative capital of the Southern Cape, the journey continues to the City of George. This tourist city lies 420 kilometers from Capetown and sits at the junction of the Garden Route and Route N12, heading north. This is a place you will want to stop for at least a day.

Lying in a rich and fertile valley that is surrounded by the Outeniqua Mountains, this area has rich farmland, majestic forests and rivers that empty into the nearby Indian Ocean. Ten of the top golf courses in Africa are here along with many opportunities for shopping and fine dining.

In addition to enjoying a round of golf, driving to the nearby Reserves or, perhaps a trip to the beaches, below are some experiences you really should try.

The last remaining passenger steam train in Africa is the Outeniqua Choo Tjoe, it runs between George and Mossel Bay on a regular basis. Completed in 1928, it officially became a preserved railway in 1992. The route used to go from George to Knysna, but because of a mudslide in 2006, it was shortened, the journey now ends with a spectacular bridge crossing.  Continuing the long standing steam train tradition in the area, this railway line now carries more than 115,000 passengers each year, most of whom are foreign tourists.  images (19)

Your railway trip starts at the Outeniqua Transport Museum in George, then with the Outeniqua Mountains in the background, you travel through rich farmlands, cross the Malgate and Gwaiing Rivers, then run through the spectacular Malgate Valley.  There you’ll see unparallelled views of Glentana and the Indian Ocean. After traveling through a tunnel, you’ll come out onto the sweeping expanse of Mussel Bay.

You traverse the Little and Great Brak River Lagoons, travel through the fynbos forests, with the final leg to Mossel Bay through the Voorbaai Train Yards, South Africa’s largest maintenance yards for steam trains. This steam train experience comes to an end at the Dias Museum Station, where you can take in some sightseeing before your return train journey.

The city of George begins the coastal region of the Garden Route. Along the way, there are many coastal reserves that enable you to see all sorts of marine life, coastal birds, flowers and a number of lakes and rivers.

The Lakes Area National Park consists of two parks – the Wilderness National Park and the Knysna National Lake Area – but because they are located so close together, they are managed as one. In the heart of the Garden Route, the Wilderness National Park offers visitors a wonderland of fens, rivers, lakes, estuaries and beaches.

Set against the beautiful landscape of lofty mountain ranges and lush forests, the many nature trails running through dense forests and along river banks offer you truly magnificent sights to see. One in particular is the brilliantly colored Knysna Loerie, one of the five species of kingfisher that live in the area. In spring, a blanket of flowers enhances the beauty of the wetlands even further.

Clinging to sea plants, the delicate and extremely endangered Knysna Seahorse calls the National Lake Area home. The salt marches and sandbanks at the mouth of the river and the lagoon are teeming with life, and in turn providing food to a wide variety of marine life.

lilac-breasted-roller-1442285-m  shark
You can often see the regular visitors to this region – dolphins and whales. You may also catch a glimpse of another of the endangered marine species – the Southern Right Whale – in the bays of the National Lake Area. As mentioned earlier, they come to these bays to have and raise their young.  And, for all you birders, you’ll find any number of birds that call the national parks home, from Fish Eagles, to Redbilled Woodhoopoe and Knysna woodpecker, to name just a few.

This is also home to one very special creature, the elephant. These majestic animals have been hunted nearly to extinction and while they are being re-introduced into the wild, only one remains here. Usually very social creatures, one specific female prefers to be alone so the rest of a small band was relocated to another reserve.

The Town of Knysna

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Before continuing onto the last leg of our journey, a place that is truly a ‘must-see’ is the town of Knysna. For many reasons it stands out along the Garden Route and is considered one of the area’s main tourist destinations.

Limestone cliffs separate the lagoon from the Indian Ocean and here you’ll find the largest indigenous forest in the country. There are many sites to see, including the Outeniqua Choo Choo Steam engine, which you can climb aboard to see some of the highlights Knysna has to offer. As mentioned earlier, this train no longer travels all the way to George but it still gives the visitor many opportunities to see some spectacular sights. There was a gold rush here in 1885 as attested by the Millwood Mines and along Jubilee Creek there are picturesque places for family picnics and hikes.

You shouldn’t leave Knysna without taking the Emzini Township Tour. This tour is guided by Ella who not only grew up in this area but still lives here and knows everyone. If you want a truly unforgettable and moving experience, this is the one tour you can’t miss. She takes you through the heart of the town, visiting the local businesses and meeting their owners. During a visit to the local elementary school you will get to interact with  the children, experiencing their dance performances and listening to the drums played by the older kids.

The Knysna Elephant Park

Just outside Knysna, on the road to Plettenbergbay, is the Knysna Elephant Park, a place you’re sure to want to visit. The first thing to do when you get to the Park is to book a time to actually see the elephants. In order to get the most from your experience with the elephants, you are encouraged to buy a basket of fresh fruits and vegetables for them. Before leaving in the 4X4 vehicles, you’ll see a short film telling you about the park and giving you the do’s and don’ts for while you are in the veld with the elephants.


In the veld, the elephants will be waiting behind a wooden screen. This is so you can become accustomed to and won’t be intimidated by the size of these gentle giants. Once you’re comfortable and understand how gentle these creatures really are, you can feed them the offerings you’ve brought. Not only can feed them, but you can touch, hug and take pictures of, or with, them.

It is most important that you remember that while they seem tame and friendly, elephants are still wild animals. They are roughly forty times your weight and are not circus-trained animals. Show them respect and be kind as they are as sensitive as a puppy or kitten. They will remember how you treated them, if and when you come back.

Another place to stop before leaving Knysna, is the Le Spa Tranquille which sits on the very edge of the Knysna Lagoon. Opened in December of 2005, this was a dream come true for owner Elza Buys. She offers visitors a rare opportunity to escape their busy and hectic world and enter into a tranquil world of special spa treatments. With more that 20 years experience in the beauty industry, she has a wealth of knowledge and together with her trained assistants, she will ensure that you leave completely relaxed and rejuvenated.

With so many national parks and nature reserves along the Garden Route, there are simply too many to include them all.

The Monkeyland Primate Sanctuary.

The final park we feel you really must explore is the Monkeyland Primate Sanctuary. Monkeyland is a modern primate sanctuary and the only one that offers the perfect habitat for free roaming, multiple-species primates. This place caters to many different species of primates in a high canopy forest environment.  There are a number of safaris on offer, you can even sit and eat lunch surrounded by the primates, our closest animal relatives. Although operating for only three years, this sanctuary is already self-sustaining as there are plenty of tourists visiting the Park to pay for the running costs of the facility.

Established with the Touch a Monkey Foundation, a not for profit organization and more widely known as a Section 21 Company, this organization secures the future of the primates brought here. In addition to custodianship of this sanctuary, they are also the creators of the Eden Project. The Eden Project searches the world for primates who are kept in small cages and unsanitary environments, bring them to the sanctuary and release them there to spend the remainder of their lives in safety and security. The program has been highly successful with all of the monkeys living together in harmony, a rare occurrence in the primate world.

Entry to Monkeyland is free, their primary revenue comes from the many guided safaris. The safaris are open-ended, meaning you can go on as many safaris as you can fit into the day for a single charge. This encourages the many visitors (tourists, residents of the Garden Route and citizens of South Africa) to come back again and again.

Other Places to See & Things To Do

The Garden Route also caters for bikers on Gourmet Motorcycle Tours which can last from 1-11 days. Not only is fabulous food and wine included on these tours but you’ll also get to visit the some of the game reserves, caves and the world’s ostrich capital – Oudtshoorn.  P6180097

And then, there are the gardens, both public and private, that are among the world’s great gardening experiences, including the ethno-botanical garden which focuses on plants used by native African tribes people and European settlers for food, medicines and shelter. There is also a Braille Trail which offers those with visual impairment the joy of gardens.

Whale watching, human origin tours, shark cage diving, museums, historical sites, hiking, cycling, garden tours, safaris, big game and bird watching, bungee jumping, black water tubing, canopy tours, incredible beaches and even the world’s largest aviary can all be on your agenda when you travel the Garden Route.



 Allow Africa into your soul.